Interviewee: Irma Maye
Interviewer: Linda Godfrey
Date: January 27, 2012
Description: Irma Maye was a child nutrition manager in Alabama.
Linda Godfrey: Tell me a little bit about yourself and about your family, where you were born and raised.
Irma Maye: I was born in Birmingham, Alabama. At the time it was Dolomite, but they changed it to Birmingham. My mother and father are deceased. I have one brother. He is retired from AT&T Bellsouth in Atlanta. And I have a husband. I’ve been married forty-five years. I have three children, two girls and a boy, Felicia, Carla, and Corey. And I have three grandchildren, and two of them are in college, and one is in elementary school [and] is doing well.
LG: Ok. Now let’s go back to when you went to school. Where did you go to school?
IM: I started to school at 22nd Street in Bessemer. That was elementary school. And I went there until sixth grade. Then I went to Dunbar my seventh and eighth grade year. They built J. S. Abrams and I started there in the ninth grade, and I graduated from Abrams in 1964.
LG: Ok. That’s when Abrams was a high school and an elementary school.
IM: Yes. We went in in like 1960, and we were the fourth class to graduate.
LG: When you were in school was it before integration or after? Were you segregated at that time?
IM: Yes we were. We went to school on the north side of Bessemer. We all went to school, but we were segregated then. And it was still segregated when I graduated.
LG: Ok. Now think about the food service in school. When you first started to school did they serve meals at the school?
IM: They served meals at the school. There wasn’t any free lunch. Sometimes my mother would pack me a lunch. The majority of the time she did. At that time, when I did buy a lunch it was like twenty-two cents for a lunch. The food was good. After I left elementary school I went to Dunbar, and the food was good there too. My mother was working in the lunchroom, but after I had left. She was also a beautician but she worked in the lunchroom too.
LG: Did you ever eat at school when you were in high school?
IM: Oh yes. Yes we did. There would be certain days we would just have vegetables – no meat – we had all vegetables and they did a lot of baking.
LG: What kind of vegetables.
IM: Oh, we had green beans and we had greens. Sometimes they would do cabbage. They would do vegetable soup and they would do peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and grilled cheese sandwiches. We had fried chicken, but they didn’t do a lot of frying, but more then than it is now.
LG: Did you have a favorite meal?
LG: What was it?
IM: Hamburgers and french-fries.
LG: That was your favorite meal in school?
IM: Yes, but I loved the vegetables too. I always have loved vegetables, even from a small child.
LG: Let’s talk about the hamburgers. Do you remember anything about the hamburger patties? Were they premade, or do you remember anything about that?
IM: Well, they made them themselves.
LG: Ok, so they patted them out themselves?
IM: They patted them out and made them. And we had french-fries; they did a lot of vegetables back then. We had homemade rolls, homemade cinnamon rolls. I think the cinnamon rolls were my favorite too! And they would do cake, and they would do cobblers. We had a variety of food.
LG: Alright. How did you start working in child nutrition?
IM: My mother was in child nutrition. And I was just at home. I had gone to school – I had about a year and a half of college and then I decided to get married. I had one child, and I told my husband, I said, “We need to buy us a house. I’m going to get me a job.” He said, “A job?” I said, “Yes.” So I told my mother, I said, “When you need help tell Mrs. Dudley at Dunbar.” And so one day she did call me. And I started working sub and they liked my work, so when they needed somebody at Abrams she recommended me. So I got hired in 1973 at Abrams.
LG: Ok, in ’73. Now that was after desegregation.
LG: You had white students and black students at the school at that time, right?
IM: Very few.
LG: Very few white or very few black?
IM: Very few white.
LG: Very few white, ok. What about in the kitchen? Were the people that worked in the kitchen with you –
IM: They were all black.
LG: They were all black, ok. Your supervisor was black also?
LG: Did you see a difference in the way the children were treated, or how did you feel about having the white children and the black children? I’m just curious about the attitude, or that type thing.
IM: Well to me, the way I was raised, you love everybody. My grandmother and my grandfather were evangelists so we didn’t draw the line. Well my grandmother used to work for a lot of white people. Sometimes she would take me to work so I was kind of used to being around [white people]. So it didn’t make any difference.
LG: Alright. One of the things that we are finding in these interviews is that there’s not that much difference. So how long have you been involved in child nutrition?
IM: I’ve been involved in it ever since 1973. I worked at Abrams to 1980. I resigned. At that time I became pregnant and we didn’t have maternity leave, so I resigned, and I had the baby. And after I had the baby I went back and subbed in my own place.
LG: Oh did you? Your old job, huh?
IM: My old job. I subbed until school was out. I went back in January and I subbed in my own spot. And Mrs. Alexander was the supervisor and she told me to come back, put my application back in, and when they had a spot I would be the first one that she called. So she called me and I went to Hart, and I’ve been there for twenty-nine years.
LG: Are you still working fulltime?
IM: No, I retired.
LG: Ok, that’s what I thought I heard.
IM: I retired, but I still sub.
LG: You still sub.
IM: I still sub. I retired in October of 2010. I retired that Friday and I was put on the sub list and I went back to work that Monday.
LG: Oh my goodness!
IM: I’ve been subbing quite regularly. I was at Davis yesterday.
LG: If I had to ask you if you enjoyed working in child nutrition what would your answer be?
IM: Yes I have.
LG: And why?
IM: I like people, and I like children. Some of them need a little love. I have so many children call me grandmother, auntie, mama, and I can see sometimes when I am downtown or at the grocery store, some of the older ones, they are grown now, I can’t remember, but they remember me and they say, “That’s the lady that used to work in the lunchroom.” And I say, “Yes.” And they say, “We used to have some good food. What about the cinnamon rolls?” They always ask about the cinnamon rolls. [Laughter] And I just love being around children.
LG: They probably remember your smile.
LG: When you think about working in child nutrition what’s been the most fulfilling part of working in child nutrition?
IM: Well, the most fulfilling is to see the children get a balanced meal, because we have had children come to us the principal said that that is the only meal and the best meal that they have had. And sometimes they’ll be crying and I’ll go out there any baby them a little bit and wipe their eyes a little bit. And I remember one little girl. I guess she’s in junior high school now. And I didn’t remember, and she told me she came to school one day and it was raining and it was cold, and she was wet. And I took her in the back and took her clothes off and put a sweater around her and dried her. We washed and dried her clothes. And [later] she said, “You’re the lady that fixed my clothes.” I said, “Yes I am.” I’ll be in the store and a lot of people will say, “Hey lunchroom lady.” And I’ll just smile, and I spoke to one little boy, I said, “Hey Cory.” And his mother looked at me and said, “Do you know him?” I said, “Yes ma’am. I work at the school where he goes.” She said, “Oh, ok.”
LG: So this little girl remembered you doing that for her, but you probably didn’t remember doing it because it’s so routine.
IM: Yes, I love children.
LG: One of the many things that you’ve done for children.
LG: Sometimes I think that you have an impact on people and you don’t realize it. Do you feel like that many times when you’re talking to these children, or talking to them when they become adults?
IM: Yes, sometimes I do. You know it’s just part of my nature I guess. My mother loved children, and we were brought up to love.
LG: Like a household of love.
IM: Yes it was. When I was a teenager my friends would come over and say, “Where’s your mother?” And she would sit down and talk with them. She had that – you know – but I knew when she meant business. She was such a loving person so my friends would just come and talk and she would talk to them. She had been around children too a lot. And so I guess I just picked it up from her.
LG: Have you learned anything with the training in child nutrition that you’ve been involved in over the years?
IM: Yes. I’ve learned a lot. I’ve learned about the quality of food, portion control, and how important it is to wash your hands – different disease that you can pick up by not preparing the food correctly.
LG: And you’ve worked long enough that you remember when there wasn’t a breakfast program, right?
LG: Can you tell anything about the implementing of the breakfast program and how difficult that might have been, and how you feel about the breakfast program now?
IM: Well, I think it’s very important and it helps a lot of children. Some children’s mothers just don’t cook. A lot of children’s parents are working and might not have time to cook. So I think with them getting a warm meal in the morning it would help them. Sometimes they come late and they will say, “My stomach’s hurting. We didn’t eat this morning.” And we will fix them something.
LG: Have you ever had a child say to you, “I haven’t had anything to eat since Friday” on Monday morning?
IM: I have. We have had children say that they haven’t had anything to eat. Sometimes they say they have had cookies or chips or something like that, but not a balanced meal
LG: Those children are hungry on Monday.
IM: They’re hungry on Monday. They really are.
LG: What about on the week after a holiday?
IM: Some of them say that their mother cooked a big meal and some of them say that they didn’t.
LG: Did you ever help with the Summer Feeding Program?
IM: Yes I did. When I first started working on the summer program I was at Abrams. We fixed lunch. And I thought that was a good thing because the children are out of school, and it might be just like it is when we’re going to school – they might not have anything to eat. And we will tell children that we are having summer feeding so they can get a balanced meal. And I still enjoy talking to them. Then I went to Hart, I worked at Hart, and that’s when they started giving the hot meal. We packed a lunch at Abrams. And then we started cooling. The children would come and they would enjoy. They would play. We had to try to keep some of them from running out the door with their food. “You can’t take it outside. You have to stay here and eat it.” So all over it was fun, and it was something that I liked to do. And I did work at Westhills School as a supervisor over the summer feeding.
LG: what would you say has been the biggest challenge over the years in child nutrition programs since you’ve been working?
IM: Well, one of the biggest challenges that I had – some children are not introduced to a lot of foods, different foods. And some of them would come up, “I don’t want that.” I’d say, “You don’t like this?” “No ma’am.” I’d say, “Have you ever had this?” “No ma’am.” I’d say, “Well just taste a little bit.” I’d say, “You taste a little bit and then you come back and tell me how you like it.” And some time they’ll come back and say, “It was good.” I’d say, “I told you.” So I just like to see them eat and be healthy.
LG: Since you’ve been working in child nutrition have you seen a change in the way from the scratch cooking, the way you had to prepare everything from scratch, to the more convenience items now?
IM: Oh yes. A long time ago we had to make rolls from scratch, and it’s a lot of preparation, and you’ve got to have your yeast just right. And then there are the vegetables. We used to do sometimes fresh vegetables.
LG: Give me an example of that.
IM: We used to do greens. We had to wash those. We used to do dried beans – pinto beans, black-eyed peas, even lima beans. We used to have to pick through them and wash them. And now we have the canned and the frozen. I really like the frozen better, because it’s close to fresh. And it’s time-saving, really it is. It’s time-saving. And at Hart we’re in the Healthy Challenge, and we have to talk to the children about the wheat bread. They say, “I don’t like that.” I say, “Well try it.” And my grandson goes to the school. He loves wheat bread because that’s what we have at home, so he’s kind of used to eating a lot of stuff many children might not even know about until they get to school.
LG: What about the milk?
IM: They love the milk. Sometimes they’ll be trying to get chocolate milk for breakfast. And they love the strawberry milk, and some like the white milk. I think milk is a good thing for them.
LG: If somebody came to you and said, “I’m interested in working in child nutrition. That’s what I would like to do.” What would you tell them?
IM: I would tell them first of all you have to go to the board and put in your application. And I would tell them it’s a great job, it really is. It was such a good job for me really because if you’re a parent when they’re out of school you’re out of school, so that worked out good for me. Working mothers, young people, say they would like to come in and they have babies, I say, “Well, you can put them in daycare or put them in kindergarten, and by the time they get out you’re out.” So that’s one great benefit I found in working and I like – just like I said – I love working with people. As a child growing up I worked with the young children at my church. I was a Sunday School teacher. My brother was the timekeeper. And my mother worked with the matrons and she sang in the choir. We’re just always involved in things like that.
LG: When you look back over your career and you think about working in child nutrition all those years do you have any regrets for having done that?
IM: No I don’t.
LG: Would you do it again?
IM: Yes I would, yes I would.
LG: Do you think your children have benefitted from you working in child nutrition?
IM: Yes they have. They learned to get along with people and they learned different things about food. They learned the value of food and they learned how to coordinate food, how to put things together that are healthy as well as good.
LG: So you took the things you learned on your job –
IM: I took it home.
LG: – and taught your children.
IM: Yes. My son – he’s thirty-one years old now – and he loves to cook. And he tells me sometimes, “Mama, I can cook better than you now.” I say, “Ok.”
LG: Can he make those sweet rolls better than you do?
IM: NO ma’am.
LG: I didn’t think so.
IM: But one thing that I like – that they have learned – they do a lot of baking their food. My son was kind of large, big guy, and he’s baking his food and he’s losing weight, and he’s going to the gym, and it’s working out.
LG: Ok, so you talk to him about those things.
IM: Yes, my girls too. It’s some food that they don’t like, but everybody doesn’t like everything. But in all they like vegetables and they do a lot of baking. Even my granddaughter cooks.
LG: Good, good. When you think back, and we all reflect on our life, what would you want the children that you’ve served over the years to remember you for?
IM: I want them to remember me as being a kind person, and if they had a problem, sometimes you have to listen to children when they don’t understand. And sometimes you can just talk to them and they’ll do better. Some of them will and some – we have some that won’t listen, but we have some that will.
LG: Is there anything else that you want to tell us?
IM: I just love working with food and I love working with people. I’m still working. As a matter of fact I worked four days this week.
LG: Is that right?
IM: That’s right. I worked two days at Hart and two days at Davis with Mrs. Dial.
LG: Is it different, or fun, or a challenge to work at different schools, because you worked at the same school for so many years?
IM: Yes, but you know it’s still kind of fun because the children that I work with now, I worked with some of them at Hart. And they say, “Hey Mrs. G! You work out here? You quit at Hart?” I say, “No, I didn’t quit Hart. I retired and I sub now.” And I heard one little boy say, “Hey grandmamma.” I said, “Hey baby.”
LG: So they still remember you.
IM: They still remember me.
LG: How does that make you feel?
IM: It makes me feel good –
IM: – to know that I helped somebody.
LG: Ok. Thank you, and thank you coming in and doing this. I know that was an effort for you and I really appreciate it.
IM: Ok. And thank you for having me.